Dear Fellow Construction Workers:
Social construction is a term that refers to standards and judgments that exist only because we assent to their existence; they have no substance beyond the value that a community, in its social relationships, collectively honor. Things that are socially constructed aren’t “real” in a concrete objective sense, but within the expression of relationships within a culture, socially constructed values have real power. Money is a social construction; objectively cash is only paper with some interesting engraving, but because we as a society agree these pieces of paper have value, we are more than willing to work very hard to accumulate lots of them. But as anyone who has lived in a time of hyperinflation knows, a shift in the agreed upon value of currency can suddenly render money worthless.
Which brings me to a fascinating post I found on my friend Samson Wagatach’s Facebook feed. He was quoting a friend of his from Nairobi, Kenya, Samuel Kiiru Mugambi, who was offering a warning about the fragility of society’s agreement to live in peace. Words, he feared, were becoming the very tools to rip apart the socially constructed fabric of civility, and he pointed to the Rwandan genocide as a horrifying example of what happens when vicious ideas are no longer constrained and become vicious actions.
I quote here from his post (with my own parenthetical translations and explanations):
Earlier this week, I happened to find myself in an impromptu political debate in a matatu (shared ride taxi) from Gikomba (a market in Nairobi). There is this Rwandese guy, from his looks you can gather that he has seen the passage of about 5 decades. His Swahili diction has the mixture of Kisii (a town in southwest Kenya) pitched scent. He seems calm, his eyeballs pop out of their sockets every time he pushes that hard smile. His tear dam has gone dry over the years.
Apparently when the genocide started in Rwanda, he was a banker in the capital. He had gone to visit his folks 30 kilometers away with his family. The particular day, he woke up went for a stroll but on coming back he noticed a smoke piping up from his village. As he approached he heard a first gun shot. From the thickets he could see a group of youths chanting while a lifeless body of who used to be his papa lied on the ground.
Then they dragged the rest of his family, paraded them, (I will at this point edit out some of the more graphic details). For the next 6 hours he squeezed himself in a porcupine hole as gunshots and screams filled the air around his neighborhood.
“Wakenya hamjui vita ni nini” (trans. “Kenya knows of war”) he slowly mumbles out as he struggles to open the window... He says he walked for 36 days in a dense forest, and every corner was a fresh heap of bodies. He got a company of 8 guys in the forest, and at times they were forced eat (again edited out more graphic details) and leaves to survive. After 36 days they saw a tarmac and luckily, they got picked up by UN caravan. He is now a barber here in Nairobi.
So good people, we have come to that stage where our political gods have drilled stupidity in our skulls. One day those careless utterances we call posts and comments here will be the seed. And a negative seed thrives so fast even in infertile soil. When it grows it will come back and haunt us. And when that day comes, teargas, military, demonstration, constitution or election laws won't stop anything.
When that day comes your career, your family, Kenya Power (Kenyan utility company), Safaricom (an African social media platform) or your useless Facebook account where you exercise your corwadness (sic) and premature stupidity won’t be there. It will be a vacuum. You will watch as they burn your family and your political gods will be miles away skinny dipping their bellies in beach sand and saunas.
Every word you throw out there will one day come back. Remember a dead Kikuyu is not greater than a dead Luo (two larger ethnic groups in Kenya). There is nothing like, “you are deader than me”. Let us not create walls, tomorrow you might need me.
These are indeed dark words; however, I believe we need the occasional jarring reminder that civility is the consequence of agreement, and that agreement can be shattered through the careless use of words.
In a time when uncivil discourse reigns supreme in every dimension of life, I would suggest we check our tongues and our keyboards to discern if we are headed to a point of no return. This is true in homes, neighborhoods, congregations and nations—they can be destroyed beyond repair by the use of cutting comments, violent ideas and vicious lies.
Every time we speak in disagreement, we should ask if our rhetoric is slamming the door on our reconciliation.
Keeping my social construction hard-hat on, I remain with love,